It was 2017 when a mixed terrier named Addison found herself sitting at the Harnett County Animal Shelter in North Carolina, waiting for a hero to save her from an unthinkable fate.
The dog’s hero was over 500 miles away.
“[Rescue advocates Chris and Bruce Leone] contacted me and told me they had found a dog that looked like a “Sandy,” recalls legendary animal trainer William Berloni, who over the course of his career has rescued over 100 dogs who would go on to play the role of Sandy in the Broadway musical “Annie.”
“They met her and she gave them kisses and they got her transferred to a no-kill shelter in South Carolina,” Berloni recalled during a recent chat.
About a week later, Addison traveled with a crowd of devoted volunteers to the Humane Society of New York, where the lovable mutt finally met Berloni for the first time.
“She was a little firework,” said Berloni, a Tony Award honoree. “She was outgoing and gregarious, and she loved cakes.”
It is this outgoing and sociable cookie lover who will take the stage as Sandy in the all-new touring production of “Annie”, playing at the Cadillac Palace Theater 7-19. March. (While in town, the production will donate show tickets to PAWS Chicago volunteers.)
“Chicago is going to absolutely love her,” says Berloni of the now 7-year-old pooch who will join 12-year-old actress Ellie Pulsifer, making her Chicago tour debut as the show’s title character.
Berloni has helped facilitate many love affairs between the fictional characters of “Annie” and “Sandy” during a long career that began when he was just a teenager.
“The day I found Sandy, the adoption fee was $7, and I only had $4 with me,” recalls Berloni, who was just 19 years old when he discovered the original rescue dog that would eventually grace the Broadway stage in 1977. The dog was to be put to sleep next morning.”
Fortunately, that day Berloni’s roommate gave him the $3 he needed to save the dog. But make no mistake – not every dog is destined to be a Sandy.
“When you walk into a shelter, there are three types of dogs,” says Berloni, an only child who grew up in central Connecticut with dogs, cats and rabbits.
“There are those who crawl in the back, those who stand at the front of the cage and bark, and then the dogs lie down and just hang out. … They’re the ones who deal with the stress of that situation,” continues Berloni, who has rescued dogs who went on to star in shows like “Legally Blonde” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
And there are the best candidates for the role of Sandy.
“First we heal their physical and emotional wounds, and then we start training them and socializing them and working them up to the moment they’re ready to take the biggest stage,” Berloni says of the training process, which can take anywhere from one to two years. “If they’re doing well and if they like it, they’ll be a performing dog. And if they’re not, we’ll retire them. They’ll be a great pet for somebody.”
For now, Addison has earned her day in the Windy City spotlight, along with her understudy Georgie, who was adopted last spring by Beroni and was also eerily close to his demise when he was discovered at a shelter in central Pennsylvania.
“I’ve often asked myself why Sandy, who is in Annie for nine whole minutes, is so popular,” says Berloni, who will hand Addison and Georgie over to animal handler Mel Rocco while in Chicago.
“But when an animal walks on stage, it takes us to another place. It becomes very real. It’s that simple. It charms people.”